Family members and survivors of the deadliest wildfire in California history sought news on Friday on the 630 people missing a week after the fast-moving blaze reduced much of the town of Paradise to ash and charred rubble.
With nearly 12,000 homes and buildings burned, fire refugees have taken up residence in tents or their vehicles and filled evacuation centres to overflowing. Search teams, meanwhile, are combing through burned-out areas looking for bodies – or anything that might carry human DNA.
Officials say many of those unaccounted for have likely survived but not yet notified family or authorities that they are alive.
At least 63 people were killed in and around Paradise, which was virtually destroyed by the Camp Fire, a blaze that erupted Nov. 8 in the Sierra foothills 175 miles (280 km) north of San Francisco. The fire is among the deadliest to have hit the United States over the last century.
Authorities attribute the death toll partly to the speed with which flames raced through the town of 27,000, driven by wind and fuelled by desiccated scrub and trees.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said on Thursday the remains of another seven victims had been located since Wednesday’s tally of 56. Nearly 300 people reported missing have been found alive and the list of missing would fluctuate, he said.
Many on the missing list are over the age of 65. Local officials and realtors have long sold Paradise as an ideal place to retire.
Brandon DuVall of Seattle said he last communicated with his retired father, Robert DuVall, in July after the father had bought a new pickup and camper. He received a call earlier this week that his father’s remains might have been found and now will go to California to provide a DNA sample.
Relatives of retired U.S. Navy veteran David Marbury, 66, are waiting to hear from him. No one has managed to speak with him since the wildfire began, and relatives’ phone calls have gone directly to his voicemail.
On Thursday, Marbury’s landlord confirmed to relatives that his duplex in Paradise had burned down. Sheriff’s officials told them his car was still in the garage.
“I really hope he’s still alive and we’re going to be able to see him,” Marbury’s niece Sadia Quint, 30, told Reuters by phone. “We just hope that he’s still with us.”
Some in Paradise were experiencing survivors’ guilt. “You’re like, ‘Why am I here?'” Sam Walker, a pastor at the First Baptist Church of Paradise, told WBUR radio. “‘Why is my family all here? Why are our churches still standing?’ I don’t know. My house is gone, like so many others.”
Cal Fire said 40 percent of the Camp Fire’s perimeter was contained, up from 35 percent, even as the blaze’s footprint grew 2,000 acres to 141,000 acres (57,000 hectares).
Thousands of additional structures remain threatened as firefighters, many from distant states, try to contain and suppress the flames.
There have been other smaller blazes in Southern California, including the Woolsey Fire, which is linked to three fatalities and has destroyed at least 500 structures near the Malibu coast west of Los Angeles. It was 57 percent contained.
Scientists say two seasons of devastating wildfires in California are ascribable to drought that is symptomatic of climate change.
Two electric utilities say they sustained equipment problems close to the origins of the blazes around the time they were reported.
Republican U.S. President Donald Trump is due to visit the fire zones on Saturday to meet displaced residents. Critics say Trump politicized the fires by blaming them, without supporting evidence, on bad forest mismanagement by California, a largely Democratic state. Trump had threatened to withhold federal assistance.
Smoke from the Camp Fire has spread far and wide. Public schools in Sacramento 90 miles (145 km) to the south, and as far away as San Francisco and Oakland, cancelled classes for Friday due to poor air quality.
Many of those who survived the flames but lost homes stayed with friends or relatives or at American Red Cross shelters.
Some of Paradise’s older residents who had lost their homes were concerned about where they would live.
“I’m just very hopeful I can work something out for the future,” Norris Godsey, 82, told the San Francisco Chronicle at a church evacuation centre in Chico. “If that’s not possible, I don’t know what I’ll do.”